Vantagepoint: Interview with new UNH CIO Stan Waddell

June 26, 2015

by Martin England

New UNH Chief Information Officer Stan Waddell is a self-admitted geek. He’s built his own computers, written his own computer programs, and also managed high-level IT projects both in corporate and in higher education, involving some of the best and brightest minds in the country. It’s this deep understanding of technology at a root level, his constant development as a people person, and his understanding of how to meet the demands of his customers that will go far in assisting his vision of using technology as a bridge instead of a barrier in regards to learning. 
Stan comes to UNH from the University of North Carolina, where he served as Chief Technology Officer and Assistant Vice Chancellor for the infrastructure/operations and communications technology divisions of the information technology services department. Prior to his time at UNC-Chapel Hill, he served as chief information security officer for the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
Signals: IT News recently sat down with Stan to discuss his new role as CIO for UNH.
Signals: Stan, tell us how you got involved with technology.
Stan: I've actually been doing technology related things for a long time, even very early as a kid. I remember the Stompers electric 4x4's. It had AA batteries and an electronic motor. I remember taking those things apart. It wasn't cool enough that they were motorized electronic 4x4's. (I was) trying to add bigger motors. Trying to change out the gearing ratios so they'd move faster instead of slower. Playing with electronic kits like homemade radios and things like that. That sort of turned into attending vocational education training in high school in electronics. I enjoyed that, and turned that into my Navy career. I was an aviation electronics technician in the Navy, working on remote control jets. That's the coolest thing, to basically have a hobby as a job.
Signals: Did that ever lead you into building your own computers? 
Stan: Yeah. My first PC 386, I built that one myself, trying to save money instead of buying an assembled kit. Back then, it was actually cheaper to build your own computer. Now, not so much. That was really cool, researching the components, trying to get the best build, best blend, and then putting all that together. I remember getting it all assembled, installing the Windows operating system on top of DOS, and then not knowing how to start Windows. I talked to a friend of mine that was big into computers that really started me along that path as well. She was like, "All you have to do is type win." I was like, "Oh, okay. That's simple enough." Then off I went. 
Signals: So that experience provided you with an understanding of technology from the bottom up. How do you think that kind of bottom-up understanding of technology translated once people became involved? 
Stan: I will all times mention the sort of split for me, because I was totally fine with just pecking away on the keyboard, coding, programming, solving problems, not really having to interface with people. The first half of my career was just that. At one point, I was thinking about what I'd be doing forever. I enjoy technology, even to this day. I do a lot of stuff at home that is just strict technology for fun. At a certain point, I started thinking, There are other aspects of technology, including project management, information security, which has a lot of people- related components. 
I was talking to my wife about that, and she was like, "Well, you know, it really depends on what you want to do. If you want to be heads down technology for the rest of your career, that's great. I'll support you. If you want to do some different things, if you want to expand your horizons, you want to look at management, you're going to have to learn some new skills. You'll have to do some different things, because they do things differently." 
She is a people person. Really, I watched her. I watched her interactions with people and started trying to emulate some of her behaviors. I found that interacting with people is cool. I know it sounds kind of kitschy, but it really is. 
I still maintain that connection to technology, but now then I suddenly got to see what people's interests were, what their problems really are. I got to dig at the challenges or the opportunities that they had surrounding technology. It’s fascinating. I really started working on my people skills, project management skills, trying to understand processes, trying to understand business processes, how they're related to technology. Then I started making the climb through the management rings.
Signals: How does your past experience as a technology leader inform your current role? What do you think the differences are between your previous environments? What are the similarities?
Stan: I think that both aspects are a lot more similar than people really tend to think. A lot of it is process. When you're just dealing with technology, you're still handling process, and you're still building technology solutions to the requirements that people are laying out. It's just that the requirements are being brought to you. On the other side of that equation, you're trying to dig those requirements out. You're trying to really get at what people want. Digging at really what's needed, not so much what's perceived to be needed or what we think the technology will do. What really is needed as a solution? I think that those pieces go closely, hand in hand, to being able to provide things that the business or the university needs. 
Signals: What are some of the strategies you've developed at the University of North Carolina and your position at Nortel you feel could benefit UNH? What are some of the things you did there that you think you could bring into this culture to help break down some of those barriers between technology and learning? 
Stan: I think a lot of what those advantages or benefits would sort of center on are the fact that I am process driven. I'm not process driven for the sake of process. I don't think that that's effective or efficient. Being able to take a look at areas where we can gain some efficiencies, by either using documentation or using best practices, or calling out a more structured process for delivering solutions. I think I was really good at that in both of my past organizations. I hope to be able to bring some of that here. The good news is there's already a great start. I look at things, like the new changed management approach that we're trying to get built in, such as the acceptance of Information Technology Service Management (ITSM). We have a number of people who are ITSM Foundation trained, and that's excellent. The Lean Initiatives. These are all things that I think in the long run, and maybe even in the short near term, are going to benefit UNH. I'd like to foster those. 
Signals: How do you view technology's role in higher education? Where do you think it fits in helping to achieve a university's academic mission? 
Stan: I think the adoption of new technologies to help with pedagogy are going to be great things. If you look at things like the LMS, the Learning Management Systems, we're making a shift to Canvas. I think that the fact that it's already sort of acclimated to using technology for the delivery of content, but if they can get on board and adopt even more of the Web 2.0 features to deliver their content in an asynchronous fashion, there really is a strong opportunity to flip the classroom, to deliver lecture, notes and content in a place that's always available for students to consume as they will, and then actually use the classroom for discovery and reinforcement. These opportunities are huge. 
Signals: How can we ensure UNH can position itself to ensure technology is contributing instead of providing barriers? 
Stan: That's a great question. A lot of it, I think, centers on how we interact with out customer base. If you just role out technology and you don't necessarily provide any instruction or any familiarization training with it, people can struggle. It's important that as you're rolling things out, you make sure that the people using the technology are involved in design and requirements gathering. Then as it's rolling out, you have huge efforts to make sure that they understand how the
technology will integrate into their daily lives. 
Some of the biggest challenges I've seen with technology programs and processes in the past have centered on not having the service owner there to actually author and architect the solutions, and then not have an effective program to train them after it's done. What ends up happening is in many cases, the same old business processes that existed before get brought into the new system without any re-engineering, or any thoughts about how they can make them more effective or efficient. Then the other pieces are that they come in and very quickly become dissatisfied with the technology in situations where it does change their workflows, and they didn't understand how or why. 
Signals: How would you describe your leadership style? 
Stan: I'm a pretty laid back leader. I think I'm more of a hands-off leader than not. I've described myself as more of a Jean Luc Picard than Captain Kirk, meaning much more integrated in regards to how I want to get input from the people that are surrounding me for a reason, because they know what they're doing, and they bring value to a team, verses me just saying, "Ah, let's do it this way, because that's what feels right to me." That's worked really well for me in the past. I do have to be mindful, and I continue to be mindful, that people have different desires for leadership. The hands-off approach works really, really well for some people, and not so well for others. I have to watch and make sure that I'm applying the right skills and the right methodologies, depending on the leadership desires of the folks that are around me. 
Signals: What factors affected your decision to come here to UNH? Have you been here in the winter yet?
Stan: That's a great question. Yes, I actually did come up in December, January and February. In January and February, I saw probably the worst of it. It was kind of daunting to see the snowdrifts that were nearly as tall as I was. It was daunting to see windows freeze. I had never seen a window freeze before. Of course, that played into the decision. When I took the value proposition as a whole, this was the right move. 
We looked at the community, the area. People are awesome. The community is gorgeous. Thirty minutes from the beach, an hour and a half from the mountains or so, roughly. A campus that is steeped in tradition long in existence, land, space. UNH is a top 100 institution, very strong research profile that's intended to grow. I think a really great IT department that had a lot of the right fundamentals and a lot of the right direction that I thought I could come in and bring value, and not be brought in as somebody who had to come in and tear down a department because it wasn't working. I was really somebody who could come in and try to help increase an already highly functioning unit. 
Signals: You mentioned that you still consider technology a hobby of sorts. What else do you do? What do you spend your leisurely time doing when you're not Captaining the Enterprise?
Stan: If you couldn't tell already, I am a geek. I like science fiction. I like technology. I like comic books. I like video games. When I have some free time, I certainly enjoy gaming. My favorite game right now is Defense of the Ancients Two. That's DOTA in the gaming parlance. I play quite liberally, and am pretty good at it. Not as good as my 13 year old. He continues to beat me soundly, but if you get us both on the same team, we can't be beaten. I enjoy that. I enjoy the console games as well. I haven't made a foray into the next generation consoles, but I do have 360 and a PS3 and I play those. At some point, I think I'm going to wait for the steam console to come out in the fall, but at some point we'll get one of the next generation consoles, too. 
Signals: How does IT integrate into that University culture so that we are serving our biggest clients (students)? 
Stan: I think probably the first and foremost is communication and transparency. You have to let folks know what your capabilities are. Not just the good parts of your capabilities, but really what your organization is about. Some of the challenges as well. What I would hope would be that we could start campaigns to almost marketing and branding. I know that's not necessarily a good term for an internal organization, but I think you have to do some of that, or some very related items, to get your mission out, to get your capabilities out, and to let people know that you provide a good service, that you're customer-oriented, and you're glad that they're a part of your business ecosystem, if you will. There's no need to stand up competing services when we already have good, strong services centrally. There are a lot of efficiencies to be gained in that respect. 
Higher-ed is perpetually challenged from a funding perspective. The more things that we can do centrally so that the departments don't have to do them, at least centralized, I think would be better for the university. Every dollar that's spent on technology, specifically technology that's not being leveraged directly towards the teaching and research mission, is a dollar not spent on those things. If we can keep services from being duplicated and being less efficient with the university resources, excellent. It starts with communication, it starts with transparency, and it very quickly dovetails into customer service and effective management of our processes and delivery. 
Signals: What is your background before coming to UNH? 
Stan: I was in the Navy for four years active and five years in the reserves. The five years in the reserves was while I was an undergrad and I was at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. I studied electrical engineering. One of the best decisions I ever made in my life. Probably the best decision was probably marrying my wife. From undergrad I was hired directly out of undergrad by Nortel Networks. I moved to Dallas, Texas (Rigeton, Texas) to work for them. That lasted four years. I was a software developer for the bulk of that time. Then, for the last year, I moved into enterprise sales support selling networking equipment and supporting network equipment post-sales. Nortel went belly up the dot com bust, and me and 64,000 of my closest friends and co-workers were turned out into the streets with no job, no employment. 
While I was looking for employment, my wife mentioned that the university was hiring. She said, "They're always hiring. People never want to quit and they seem happy in what they're doing." She worked for an affiliate, University Hospital. I was like, "Well, hey, I don't have a job. I'll try it." 
I put in an application for a Network Analyst position. I got a call back. The director of the networking group said, "Hey man, I love your resume. I love the skills. I think you could be a great asset to the university, but my fear is that you're going to come on board and you're going to stay here for a couple of months and then you're going to go right back out into the industry as soon as the market turns back up." 
I heard that, and I understood where that was coming from, but I needed a job. We discussed that, and I said, "Hey let's say I come and I stay a year or I stay two years. I think the long and the short of it is we'd both benefit from that. I'd get to learn more about your environment. You'd get to benefit from my experience. It would be a great relationship." We sort of haggled through that for a while, and then he finally said, "All right. I'll bring you on board." 
I started there as a Network Analyst One. In the back of my mind, I was thinking as soon as the economy turns back up, I'm going back to industry. After a while of being in higher education, and seeing the direct impact that I could have on the mission of the university, seeing the direct impact I could have on research and education and actually just getting to enjoy the entrepreneurial spirit of higher ed, being able to bring ideas forward, turn them into projects and watch them come to fruition, I didn't have that in industry. I didn't have that sense of fulfillment in industry. At a certain point, I stopped even wondering what the market was doing. Really, I've never thought about going back to industry since. 
Signals: Where would you say you feel most at home? When you are in that space, it's kind of like when you go to a restaurant that has really good food, and you eat the food and it just transports you and you're not thinking about anything else but what you're eating. 
Stan: In the work sense, it probably is in project initiation. I love the Zen that comes from crafting solutions. Getting to sit in front of people and say, "What challenges are you having? What opportunities do you have, and how can we help?" To sort of watch them go through the list of things that they'd like to see happen or things that they have imposed on them that they have no solution for, and then craft that solution, that's awesome. I love it. Then followed very closely by the wrap up. It's almost like the reveal on the home and garden TV shows. Right? When the hosts walks through and says, "Are you ready to see your new fixer upper?" They reveal it and the people are like, "Oh my gosh." I love that. I love that feeling. I love it when a plan comes together. That's another geek reference. Those things are great. I think they are things that transfer you or transport you to a happy place. 
On a personal front, I just love being at home and spending time with the family. I love that quiet, down time to sort of just get in and engage with the family and enjoy them.
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